Who Are…Telefon Tel Aviv
[Editor's Note: Shortly after this feature was submitted, Charlie Cooper, one half of Telefon Tel Aviv, passed away in Chicago. We have taken care to leave all of his quotes largely untouched.]
Telefon Tel Aviv formed in 1999, six years after high schoolers Charlie Cooper and Joshua Eustis met in New Orleans. Relocating to Chicago in 2001, the pair began capturing attention via remix work for Nine Inch Nails, Bebel Gilberto and jazz vet Phil Ranelin, as well as their own debut, '01's Fahrenheit Fair Enough, on which scattered rhythm programming mixed with live playing (particularly a Fender Rhodes keyboard, the signature sound of '70s jazz-funk) to intriguing ends. 2004's Map of What Is Effortless, refined the formula, offering stickier, more rounded production. Now, following an EP and remix collection, Immolate Yourself throws out the prior rulebook and goes for a massive-sounding wash of sound that approaches shoegaze intensity at times. eMusic's Michaelangelo Matos recently chatted with the pair about Telefon Tel Aviv's origins as teenage musicians in New Orleans, their move toward sonic impressionism, and where to eat on the road.
On their first meeting:
Joshua Eustis: My friend Anton Falconi lived in Charlie's neighborhood. Charlie was in this in this big New Orleans band. It was a melting pot: they'd play ska-punk, emo before it was emo. Big crowds — they were popular. I knew about them a year before I knew Charlie. In high school time, that was a massive amount of time to be around. They needed a keyboard player so Charlie called me.
Charlie Cooper: I was 14 or 15. There weren't that many people to choose from, so I gave him a call. We ended up talking for over an hour about this and that and the other, and we started seeing each other around after that.
Eustis: I said, “Ah man, I can't play keyboards.” I was mostly a guitar player. We didn't start making music together till '99. I was doing kind of industrial stuff on my own, and then joined a band with Anthony Thibault, who was up until recently one of the lead programmers for the last two Tomb Raider games. He was kind of my mentor in high school. He taught me the ropes of electronic music.
On not sounding European:
Eustis: The [oldest] track we've released is “8 Track Project Cut,” off the Immediate Action EP. That's from spring of '99; we did four songs really quickly. It was the template of what we wanted to do: picking up where Autechre left off, but putting more urban beats, more hip-hop influence into it. The bounce rap of New Orleans was probably the biggest influence on us rhythmically. Throughout the history of Telefon Tel Aviv, the biggest rhythmic influence on us has been Mannie Fresh. In New Orleans, everybody listened to that; my parents listened to it.
Cooper: Everybody [in late-'90s IDM] was following the template of Autechre or Aphex Twin. We were trying to come up with something American. We wanted a different perspective.
On musical impressionism:
Eustis: You can probably look at Immolate Yourself as our first impressionist record. With the first two, I was railing against being thought of impressionistic. With Farenheit Fair Enough and Map of What Is Effortless, everything is to the point, and there's nothing vague about it.
Cooper: We actively wanted a different sound and texture from the record. We needed a new way to do things. The first thing was, “We're gonna get rid of the Rhodes, we're gonna use synths.”
Eustis: We're experimenting with sound with the same amount of detail as before. But the Rhodes coupled with the guitars and skittery beats, I felt sort of trapped by that. At the same time, I know this will disappoint people who liked the last two, but we're not trying to be alienating. You've got to make what you want to make, so we decided to make a record that was totally reactionary. We don't want to keep rehashing what we've done before. People do that. Other people are taking up where our first two albums left off. That's great, but I don't want to make the same record, and neither does Charlie — for sure.
On setting the past ablaze:
Eustis: We've always joked about metal bands in the '90s, like Incantation and Immolation, with these long, ridiculous, monosyllabic names: “We've got to do a song one day called “Immolate Your Anus” or “Inverted Meat Hook Sodomy.” Charlie wrote the song and had a different title for it, but it had lyrics about lighting himself on fire. I said, “Dude, let's call it “Immolate Yourself,' brah!” [laughs] It kind of took on a whole new light for the record. We just took our back catalog and torched it to the ground. It's not a phoenix — we've destroyed everything we've been working on and are starting over.
On their relatives' response to their music:
Cooper: It took a while for my family to understand. It took a while for my mother to be like, “OK, you're gonna do fine.” Thank god my sister graduated as a nurse. She's totally smart and I'm this jackass traveling to make a living, feast or famine. As we got bigger press, in Rolling Stone and the New York Times, my mom finally understood that we're actually doing something.
Eustis: My family is super-supportive: “Are you going on tour?” “When's your new record coming out? Do I have to get it on the interweb?”
On dining while on tour:
Eustis: In Italy, [you can eat] anywhere, but specifically, go to Autogrill. It's a chain of gas stations. Not only do they have a pannini stand, you get a bottle of water and coffee that has no peer in the U.S. It'll blow your fucking head back. In San Francisco, the Anchor Oyster Company, in the Castro, is the best place you can eat oysters anywhere.
Cooper: On our last tour with Matthew Dear, we kept talking about it and talking about it and talking about it. We called [the Anchor] in advance when we got to San Francisco; they were closing in 15 minutes. We both have experience with the service industry, and we said, “You can tell us to fuck off. But we're playing a show tonight and we're dying to eat some oysters.” And they said, “Come on in, we'll take care of you.” They got us a table for nine, ten minutes before close. They opened the next day's oysters for us. Matthew Dear and his band were like, “You were not bullshitting.”